The Internet has increased
the public’s freedom of information, freedom of speech and freedom of
action tremendously. This article focuses on two challenges posed by the
harmonization of cyber-democracy and our tradition of parliamentary democracy:
first, how to marry active voter participation and parliamentary legitimacy;
second, how to protect the separation of powers.
The “connected” public enjoys
a level of autonomy, previously inconceivable. With even the most basic of
web-surfing skills, people can quickly access an unprecedented wealth of
information. Moreover, the Internet allows people to link with one
another and to sometimes resolve directly issues that not so long ago would
have been deferred to elected officials or bureaucrats.
This is one of the most
beneficial uses of the Internet. It invites people to a new activism that
is highly laudable. In addition, it allows many web surfers to forge
virtual community ties, to form opinions and to seek out their collective
voice. We applaud all of this because the clearest indication of a democracy
in good health is the determination of individuals to involve themselves in
However, in a society governed
by the rule of law, the practice of democracy is not restricted to popular
initiatives, however desirable they may be. Such a society is governed by
laws that must be enacted by authorities whose legitimacy rests on universally
recognized foundations. This holds even truer for a complex society such
as ours, where the people do not govern themselves directly; rather, they
express their sovereign will through the representatives elected to speak
in their name.
In Quebec, this authority is vested in
parliament, composed of the National Assembly and the Lieutenant Governor.
Within the National Assembly, the members, in casting their votes, give
the sole legal expression to the common will.
Therefore, parliament is
inevitably the hub of the process by which we formally and collectively declare
who we are and how we wish to live. The rules and principles governing
our collective life ultimately draw their legitimacy from decisions made in our
That is why parliament’s role
cannot be ignored in any consideration of cyber-democracy and the various
actions which may result from it. We cannot allow parliament to be marginalized
or people to imagine that popular demonstrations, whether in the streets or on
the Internet, are the real expression of the will of the people.
Unfortunately, the Internet
could contribute to fueling this misconception, as it lends itself readily to a
sort of direct virtual democracy. In this guise, it enlivens what might
be called “democratic competition”, fundamentally a good thing for any
free society. But it can also give web surfers the illusion that
everything, or almost everything, can be resolved in cyberspace, without any
In short, to be real and
effective, cyber-democracy must not undermine the role of parliament; on the
contrary, parliament must be given a central place. This is why it is
important to show the public that the best way to participate in their own
governance is to forge a partnership with the National Assembly and its
The first challenge is thus to
marry popular activism and parliamentary legitimacy.
strengthening the separation of powers
The second challenge concerns
the relations between parliament and the public service. As you know, our
political system is founded upon two main principles: the separation of powers
and the supremacy of parliament.
The separation of powers is
fundamental to all democracies. It protects the people from the
inappropriate concentration of power in the hands of a single group or
individual. It also permits each of the three branches of power—the
Legislative, Executive and Judiciary—to function independently, being circumscribed
and balanced by the other two.
Parliamentary supremacy refers
not only to the role of monitoring the Executive, which in our constitutional
system is devolved upon to the legislature, but also to the fact that
parliament alone has the power to establish the rules of public law.
Although the public service
has greater resources than the National Assembly, its legitimacy hinges
entirely on decisions made by the members of the legislature.
Too often, the terms
“parliament” and “government” are confused in the minds of the public.
People vaguely consider them synonymous with a complex and mysterious
apparatus–a regrettably almost chronic source of cynicism.
Here again, the Internet,
which we want to use in the service of democracy, may paradoxically, at times,
be the cause of undesirable situations. The National Assembly and
branches of the public service are already competing on the Internet with a
multitude of organizations of all sorts. Moreover, the National Assembly
and the public service are even competing with each other to some extent.
I mentioned earlier that
“democratic competition” within a society is fundamentally healthy.
However, some organizations must never be in competition with one
another, and that is precisely the case of the National Assembly of Quebec and
the public service of Quebec.
Not only is competition between these two bodies contrary to the
fundamental principles of our constitutional system, but it runs the risk of
heightening the confusion that already exists in the minds of the public.
Such competition would also be
profoundly unequal. The public sector is relatively extensive; it
comprises more than 20 ministries alone, and each has its own website.
The National Assembly has but one site and far fewer resources at its
disposal than does the administration. Therefore, what must be done to
establish a good partnership?
The primary objective is to
eliminate any ambiguity in the relations between the various public
organizations in their respective areas of jurisdiction. More
specifically, with each action taken in cyber-space, the public must always
understand who is involved, in what context and for what purpose.
In the case of an online
consultation, for example, people must know not only which organization is
sponsoring an initiative (governmental or parliamentary), but also:
- the circumstances or reasons behind its consulting
- who exactly will hear witnesses—will parliamentarians
be present, or only public officials;
- the rules governing the consultations;
- whether the hearings will be public or not; and
- what future decisions or measures will be affected by
If these guidelines are put
into practice, it should be relatively easy for the public to draw a
distinction between the measures taken by the Assembly and those taken by
the Executive. In fact, it goes without saying that simultaneous
consultations on the same topic must be avoided. Therefore, if a parliamentary
committee holds consultations on a given subject, the ministry or organization
concerned should refrain from soliciting the public’s opinions via the
This issue is an important
one: at stake are the effectiveness of our respective actions and the need for
the public to recognize their legitimacy.
In attempting to make
cyber-democracy flourish, we must avoid creating “cyber-anarchy” at all costs.
Those are the two major
challenges cyber-democracy poses. I would now like to say a few words on
the use of new technologies in a parliamentary setting.
Interaction between the
public and parliament in the era of modern communications
Since the 1990s, the National
Assembly has been trying to get the very best out of what new technologies have
to offer as a way to strengthen ties between it and the public.
In terms of information, the
National Assembly has established a whole range of programs to inform
Quebeckers about their parliament. However, the true cornerstone of our
information initiatives is our website.
Inaugurated in May 1995, and
continually expanded since then, our website contains a wealth of information
on the members, the National Assembly’s business, and our rich parliamentary
history. Aside from new projects currently being prepared, including the
possibility for people to add their name to mailing lists, it would be fair to
say that our Assembly ranks very favourably with other parliaments around the
world, in this regard.
We are up to speed in
consultations too. As you are certainly aware, the public hearing of
witnesses is the preferred means of parliamentary committees to broaden their
knowledge in a particular field.
In fact, traditional hearings
reach a limited segment of the population only. To correct this
shortcoming, we have explored two avenues, at least as far as the first
initiative is concerned.
The first involves three
online-consultation pilot projects. Given the importance the
Secrétariat of the Conseil du trésor has given to its new government
portal for online consultations, allow me to elaborate on these experiments.
Between June 2000 and February
2004, National Assembly committees organized the three following online
- The first consultation was held in the fall of 2000
on the topic of the political and socioeconomic effects of the Free Trade
Area of the Americas for Quebec (39 submissions and 25 opinions on line);
- The second online consultation was held in the fall
of 2002 on reforming our voting system (134 submissions and 38 opinions on
- The third online consultation was held in the winter
of 2004 on new issues in food safety in Quebec (80 submissions and 112
opinions on line).
These three series of
consultations were organized along similar lines. Through the Assembly’s
website, the public was invited to complete a questionnaire based on a working
paper, which was also available on-line. Respondents were asked to
identify themselves, since anonymous replies were not permitted. Participants
were sent automatic acknowledgements of receipt containing the text of their
Analysis of these three
experiments led us to a number of conclusions with respect to the role and
future of online consultations:
- firstly, it is too soon to hope for —or fear—massive
public participation in such exercises. Turnout was very modest,
particularly in the first two. The main reasons for these results might be
the subject chosen, the complexity of the questionnaire, the publicity for
this new means of expressing an opinion, or perhaps, the proportion
of the population with access to the Internet at the time;
- online consultations will not replace traditional
public hearings; they will remain, in the foreseeable future,
complementary to public hearings. The answers received were by and
large brief and spontaneous, and very few respondents provided detailed
information or the structured reasoning usually found in a formal
submission. The vast majority of respondents likely had not even
read the consultation document;
- the information collected was nevertheless useful.
It made the MNAs aware of the opinions of ordinary citizens, drew
their attention to aspects of the subject they might have missed and
complemented the data provided by experts.
We are convinced that online
consultations have a definite future in the National Assembly. However,
before the practice is expanded, there is still work to be done. In this
respect, we must pay particular attention to the formulation of the
questionnaire, because it is a key factor in the success of consultations.
Our questionnaires must be user-friendly and aim for the right balance
between multiple choice questions and open-answer questions.
The same applies to working
papers. They must be more reader-friendly if they are going to be read.
The highly technical language common to many official publications must
be avoided, and a clear and simple approach used.
The second avenue we wish to
explore this fall will involve videoconferencing technology. In this
experiment, a designated parliamentary committee meeting in a specially
equipped room will hear witnesses from various regions of Quebec. Signals
will be carried by phone line and perhaps even via webcam. To ensure the
necessary technical support is available in each region, we will call on local
partners, who will provide the required staff and equipment on site. At
the end of the project, we will collect participating members’ comments and
suggestions in order to assess how to follow up this experiment.
Lastly, the highest level of
interaction, which is active public participation – ultimately even in the
parliamentary decision-making process itself – is an especially delicate
issue, and we have yet to address it.
The current practices of
certain parliaments, such as those of Australia, Scotland and a few American
states, are of interest and should be documented. They include:
- inviting the public to address electronic petitions
to the Assembly;
- holding online discussion forums, moderated by either
a member or an expert, the goal and scope of which would vary according to
the subject being studied and the committee’s terms of reference; and
- accepting proposals for amendments from the public to
bills under consideration.
the potential benefits of these possibilities are enticing, they also present
the institutional front, they would require the National Assembly to change
some of its procedures. They would also require expertise that we do not yet
have – to organize and moderate online discussions, for example. Members
not only would have to adjust to a different way of working, but would
have to accommodate in their deliberations a public called upon increasingly to
become an active partner.
between parliament and the public service
now, I have emphasized mainly the distinctions between parliament and the
public service. I do not, however, want to neglect the collaboration we
must seek between these two entities. In specific terms, allow me to suggest
as both the National Assembly and the public service are launching into
cyber-democracy, it appears to me completely logical for them to draw mutual
benefit by sharing – on a purely technical level – the fruits of our respective
National Assembly has already organized three online consultations; different
government branches have done the same. To share our experiences, for
example, with respect to advertising techniques, questionnaire drafting,
technological environment design, etc, could be mutually beneficial.
well, online consultations may become widespread in years to come.
We would then have to ensure respect for the separation of powers; and I
earlier suggested guidelines in this regard.
addition to this, I believe that it would be useful for the National Assembly
and the Executive branch to inform one another of all proposed or ongoing
online consultations. By doing so, members and senior bureaucrats alike
could better focus their respective actions and avoid overlap.
since the National Assembly and the public service both operate in a society
that is increasingly “connected”, I believe it would be wise to start thinking
about how these two institutions communicate with one another, specifically
when it comes to parliamentary control.
departments of the public service, through their minister, send the National
Assembly more and more texts of bills and reports on their management and
activities. Most of the time, however, only the hard copies reach the
not start right now thinking about a way to digitize and integrate this
process? This question has two aspects I deem to be particularly
- The electronic transmission for
official “tabling” of all papers required by law to be tabled in the
National Assembly; and
- The digital processing of the
entire process of drafting, considering and publishing legislation and
amendments, which is generally referred to as “bill processing”.
hasten to assure you that we are very much aware of the technical and other
difficulties that digital legislative processing in particular would entail.
However, we all share the duty to ensure modern and effective management
of our resources, on behalf of taxpayers. New communications technologies
offer alluring possibilities in this sense. In my opinion, it is our duty
to look into them.
live in an era that can be characterized as “revolutionary”. Regardless
of what some experts say, the shape our democracy will take at the end of this
revolution remains, for the most part, unpredictable.
appears, however, that cyber-democracy is not a panacea; it cannot, on its own,
close the democratic deficit.
powerful as the Internet may be, it is but one of many tools. It must be used
with skill, but we must also know when to choose another more appropriate tool
pressure of new technologies is already such that we may safely wager that our
representative democracy will not follow traditional models for much longer.
is hardly problematic: parliamentary procedures are not and never were
cast in stone. Over the centuries our parliamentary system has changed to
the point of becoming unrecognizable now.
parliament must remain open and responsive to socio-cultural and technological
change in our society. But we must avoid the temptation to rush these changes
before we know the consequences. Let us take the time we need and give
the thought required in order to design intelligently and with foresight, and
to manage cautiously and wisely, the very best combination of our democratic
heritage and the possibilities offered by the new technologies. Therein
lies the real challenge of cyber-democracy.